How Frozen Fuel Works
All by itself, methane isn't very exciting. It's a colorless, odorless gas and the simplest member of the alkane series of hydrocarbons. Its biggest claim to fame isthat, as the main constituent of natural gas, it's useful as a source of energy.Recently, however, geologists have discovered a type of methane that has piqued their curiosity. Part of its unusual character is how it exists in its natural state-- trapped inside a cage of ice. Even more intriguing is how much of this frozen methane seems to be locked away in the Earth's crust. Some estimates indicatethat as much as 700 quadrillion (700 × 10
) cubic feet (20 quadrillion cubic meters) of methane are encased in ice and trapped in seafloor sediments all over the world .That's twice as much carbon as Earth's other fossil fuels combined.The discovery of this new type of methane, what scientists call
, has led to two important questions. The first is pragmatic: Will it burn likeordinary methane? It turns out it will. If you take a piece of methane hydrate -- it looks like hard-packed snow -- and touch a lighted match to it, the sample willburn with a reddish flame. And if that's the case, it could be used to heat homes, fuel cars and generally power energy-hungry nations such as Japan, theUnited States, India and China. Recent data suggest that just 1 percent of Earth's methane hydrate deposits could yield enough natural gas to meet America'senergy needs for 170,000 yearsThe second question is partly an ethical consideration: Should we, as a global community trying fervently to develop clean, renewable energy, embrace one of the fossil fuels that got us into trouble in the first place? Science can't answer that question. It can, however, reveal the challenges and risks that face countrieshoping to take advantage of methane hydrate. One of the most significant challenges is finding efficient ways to extract the frozen fuel. More troubling arepotential catastrophes -- ranging from massive underwater landslides to a runaway greenhouse effect -- related to methane mining.In this article, we'll explore all the positives and negatives of methane hydrate. We'll look at its relatively brief history, as well as how it fits in some possiblefuture scenarios. And, of course, we'll examine the basic science behind this so-called "flammable ice."Let's start with some chemistry.
Fire and Ice: The Chemistry of Methane Hydrate
Representation of a methane molecule, with the blue sphere signifying carbon and the four red spheres signifying hydrogen
Frozen fuel is the catchy name for a family of substances known as
. The gas in question is natural gas, a mixture of hydrocarbons, such asmethane, propane, butane and pentane. Of these, methane is by far the most common component and one of the most-studied compounds in chemistry.Like all hydrocarbons, methane contains only two elements -- carbon and hydrogen. It is an example of a
, or a molecule composedentirely of single bonds and therefore the maximum number of hydrogen atoms allowed. The general formula for saturated hydrocarbons is C
. Methaneonly has one carbon atom, so its chemical formula is CH
. Chemists describe this shape as a tetrahedron.Methane is a colorless, odorless, combustible gas produced by bacterial decomposition of plant and animal matter. It forms in a process shared by all fossilfuels. First, marine plants and animals die and fall to the seafloor. Next, mud and other seafloor sediments cover the decomposing organisms. The sedimentsput a great deal of pressure on the organic matter and begin to compress it. This compression, combined with high temperatures, breaks down the carbonbonds in the organic matter, transforming it into oil and natural gas.Clathrate CompoundsMethane hydrate is a
, a chemical substance made of one compound nested inside another. The word comes from the Latin
, meaning "bars"or "lattice." One compound serves as a host, the other as a guest. In the case of methane hydrate, water is the host and methane is the guest. For this reason,chemists sometimes refer to clathrates as
.Generally, this methane -- what geologists describe as "conventional" methane -- is located beneath the Earth's surface. To get to it, workers must drill throughrock and sediment and tap into the methane deposits to release the gas. Then they pump it to the surface, where it's transported through pipes across thecountry.Methane can also form unconventionally if the sediments producing it are located about 1,640 feet (500 meters) below the ocean surface. The near-freezingtemperatures and high pressure of these conditions causes the methane to become encased in ice. The methane doesn't bond chemically with the water.Instead, each tetrahedral methane molecule sits inside a crystalline shell made of ice. This unique substance is known as
, and as soon as itreaches warmer temperatures and lower pressures, the ice melts away, leaving behind pure methane.Geologists discovered naturally occurring methane hydrate only recently, but chemists have known about it for years, as we'll see in the next section.
A Brief History of Methane Hydrate
hydrate chunks recovered from the Gulf of Mexico in 2002
The history of gas hydrates can be traced back to Humphrey Davy, a chemist from Cornwall, England, who identified chlorine as an element in 1810.Davy and his assistant, Michael Faraday, continued to work with chlorine throughout the early 1800s, mixing the green gas with water and cooling the mixture tolow temperatures.It's very likely that Davy observed the strange solid that resulted as chlorine atoms became encased in ice crystals, but Faraday gets official credit for thediscovery. In 1823, Faraday issued a report describing the strange substance and called it chlorine clathrate hydrate. Other types of clathrates, each involving aguest compound locked inside the lattice structure of a host, were soon discovered, but they remained a laboratory curiosity.Then, in the 1930s, natural-gas miners began to complain of an icelike material clogging pipelines exposed to cold temperatures. Scientists determined that thismaterial was not pure ice, but ice wrapped around methane. They wasted no time trying to find ways to prevent hydrates from forming and turned primarily tochemicals, such as methanol or monoethylene glycol. Since then, mining companies have added these materials to their natural-gas pipelines to inhibit hydrateformation.